I'D LIKE TO BUY A VERB
by Deborah Potter
Anyone watching television news these days could be forgiven for
thinking they've accidentally tuned into a strange new game show
called "Hide the Verb." No matter how hard you try, it
seems, you just can't find one.
Remember verbs? They're the action words that come between subjects
and objects, telling what happened and when. Try locating one in
this NBC Nightly News script: "Less resilient, local business.
Dwight's concession stand, in the family three generations. Sales
this summer off 75 percent." Not a verb in sight.
What is going on in TV newsrooms? It seems unlikely we're victims
of some vast anti-verb conspiracy that has recruited news writers
from coast to coast. Instead, this new news-speak could actually
be the result of a misguided attempt to improve broadcast writing
by making it more active and immediate. The goal is laudable. The
results are laughable.
Problem number one: Some writers appear to believe that by eliminating
all forms of the verb "to be," they can avoid the passive
voice. Wrong. The best way to spot a passive is to look for the
subject of the sentence. If it comes after the verb, or if it's
missing altogether, you've used a passive. "The body was found
at noon" is passive because we don't know who found it. Taking
out "was" solves nothing at all. Ike Pigott of WCFT-TV/WJSU-TV
in Birmingham, AL, has his own tongue-in-cheek explanation for why
writers might be killing off auxiliary verbs like "is"
or "was." "Maybe they feel more room for important
facts when small words removed."
Problem number two: When verbs do turn up in copy they're often
disguised as gerunds or participles, trailing an "-ing"
behind them. On Fox News, for instance, Shepard Smith's scripts
are notorious for overdoing that "-ing" thing. "Cops
and demonstrators clashing openly in the streets of the nation's
capital, pepper spray, smoke bombs, night sticks, beating back the
crowds." That's not active copy. It's a run-on sentence fragment.
And it violates a central principle of good writing. As George Orwell
put it, good prose is like a windowpane. It does not draw attention
Problem number three: Some scripts have verbs, all right, but the
verbs don't get along. "Golfers getting quite a surprise on
the green when a single-engine plane makes an emergency landing.
It happened at the Hillcrest Country Club in Hollywood. A plane
which was towing a banner experiencing problems and forced to land.
The pilot putting it down safely near the 11th hole." Could
the writers at Miami's WSVN-TV have been engaged in a contest that
day to see who could cram the most verb tenses into one paragraph?
All this "ing-ing" and verb dropping and tense shifting
in news writing is not accidental. It appears to be part and parcel
of an ongoing effort to make news sound more current, more happening,
more now. But the result is news that sounds more awkward, more
phony, more odd. What could be stranger than the false present tense,
a verb virus that seems to be spreading from newsroom to newsroom.
"Payne Stewart dies in a plane crash," we're told, a full
day after the accident, when the truth is that Payne Stewart died.
Using the present tense in cases like this isn't just bad grammar,
it's dishonest and misleading, and it ought to go.
Mark Wright, morning anchor at KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City, suspects
that what's driving all this verb abuse is a desire for a "snappy,
headliney" sound. But he says the cost of achieving that sound
is too high: "The result is the viewer must really work to
understand what the story is about."
Writing that is hard to follow only serves to widen the existing
gap between broadcast journalists and their viewers. It reinforces
the public's perception that people in newsrooms are distant and
different from everyone else, since they certainly don't talk like
KSTP-TV news director Scott Libin has a suggestion for breaking
the verb-free habit: Try talking that way to somebody in person
and see what kind of funny looks you get. "Come to think of
it," he says, "that's probably the way a lot of people
look at their televisions while the news is on." Could that
possibly explain why so many people aren't even watching the news
It used to be axiomatic that broadcast newswriting should be conversational.
The verb-less verbiage that's getting on the air these days is unnatural
in the extreme. It often sounds more like news delivered by telegram.
"Seven shot, one dead, stop. Police investigating, stop."
Stop, indeed. Please.
This article was originally published
by RTNDA Communicator magazine, July 2000.